Community Voice: Golf . . . Suits Them to a Tee
AURORA, IL -- On a perfect June day, Amanda Malawski sinks her feet into the sand of a golf bunker, then swivels her hips to make sure her feet are set.
Seven-year-old Amanda, who suffers from weakness on one side of her body, holds the golf club close to her torso, then looks to Phillips Park Golf Course assistant pro Jason Johansen for approval.
"Our number one goal in a sand trap is to get the ball out of the sand," Johansen tells Amanda as well as a group of about 10 other special needs kids. "You're not going to hit the golf ball. You're going to hit the sand."
Johansen helps Amanda position her hands, then lets the little blond take a swing. Sand flies, the ball pops up, but doesn't quite reach the rim. Still the crowd -- mostly kids and moms -- applauds. Amanda looks back at her mom and smiles.
It's all the reward her mother needs.
"At this age they see the difference between themselves and their peers, and they get frustrated," says Lori Malawski, a Sugar Grove mother of two special needs children, Amanda and her twin Alex. "You want them to be like regular kids, and this is a regular kid thing for them to do."
Malawski's children are participants in a Sunshine Through Golf Foundation summer camp at Phillips Park Golf Course. The foundation partners with the Fox Valley Special Recreation Services and Phillips Park golf pros to offer five weeks of golf instruction, free of charge, to individuals with physical and mental disabilities.
"It's a 'feel good' program," says Jeff Schmidt, a PGA professional at Phillips Park who volunteers his time to the Sunshine program. "It's a way to give back to the game -- not to the good players, but to the ones who want to just get outdoors and enjoy it."
The challenge for pros like Schmidt is to tailor instruction to individuals with special needs ranging from autism to Down syndrome to wheelchair confinement.
"It's taught on a very personal level," says Schmidt. "You have to be very creative."
And they are. Schmidt and Johansen use imaginative teaching techniques like magic circles in which they spray-paint around the feet of students to show boundaries for movement. Or they'll use shapes and letters to describe golf positions. Schmidt's favorite, though, is the "squish the bug" description they use to describe the twist of a player's back foot when swinging a club.
"If you tell them to rotate their back foot they don't always understand," says Schmidt. "But everyone knows how to squish a bug." Tricia Brummel, of North Aurora, says the program works wonders for her 7-year-old son Dakota. He now likes golf so much he questions his mom regularly about when it's "golf day" and he practices in the back yard on off days.
"Dakota has a hard time with group sports," explains Brummel. "For him to come out and play and not be criticized is important. The instructors here are supportive and fun and teach them the skills." The Sunshine Through Golf Foundation has instilled a love of golf in thousands of youngsters like Dakota. But the foundation hasn't always focused on the disabled. The original organization, before it changed names, was the Chicago District Golf Charities. It was founded in 1944 to assist military veterans returning from World War II.
In time, the emphasis shifted to youth golf, turf research and individuals with disabilities. Though still supportive of veterans, Sunshine Through Golf now offers 74 camps, primarily in the Chicago area, for individuals of all ages and disabilities and is a feeder program for the Illinois Special Olympics.
"We're growing each and every year," says Alex Nolly, manager of the Sunshine Through Golf Foundation Administration. "Participants have a fun time. They learn fast. And they get outside. That's the key." Still, there's a side benefit to the foundation's golf program. On that same perfect June day, two moms, Lori Malawski and Tricia Brummel, met for the first time. They clapped for each other's children and chatted while soaking up the sun's rays.
"It's nice to have other people to talk to who know about therapies and to compare stories," says Malawski. "And it's nice to know that you're not alone in this world of special needs kids."
For more information on the Sunshine Through Golf Foundation, go to http://www.sunshinethroughgolf.org/default.asp or contact (630) 257-2005.
To view video clips of youth with disabilities learning and playing golf, go to the Youth section of NCPAD's Golf Factsheet at http://www.ncpad.org/212/1396/Golf.